The Wolverine: Mutton-Chopped Magnificence

After the relative disaster that was “X-Men Origins,” the world really needs Wolverine to kick ass again. Hugh Jackman, who has been playing the clawed mutant since 2000’s original “X-Men,” is certainly game. The actor has aged as well as the regenerative character he made famous. But having Wolverine in a movie isn’t enough. He needs to be surrounded by interesting characters to complement his inner and external struggles, as well as a guiding filmmaker and screenwriters who can play to the character’s strengths.

Cue “The Wolverine” and director James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Walk the Line.” Mangold and company have crafted a film that, in all the important ways at least, gives us everything we want in a Wolverine movie, while cutting away the many, many things we don’t. The result is a refreshing return to form for the mutton chopped mutant.

The film takes place after the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” with Logan aka Wolverine experiencing haunting visions of the woman he loved and lost, Jean Grey. While drifting through an Alaskan village, he is tracked by the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who convinces him to travel to Japan to pay last respects to a man he saved from the bombing of Nagasaki during WWII.

This man, Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada), is the wealthy owner of a tech corporation. When Logan arrives, Yashida offers him more than just a goodbye. He claims he can make Logan immortal. And when a man has experienced as much pain (both physical and emotional) as Logan has, it’s an enticing offer. Yashida is also afraid for his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is being threatened by Yakuza assassins.

The plot sets up several enticing scenarios but devolves by the end into generic sci-fi/action tropes. Until then, it’s a pretty engaging ride. But we’re not really here for the story. We’re here to see Wolverine stab dudes with those glorious adamantium claws, something he gets to do plenty of here. “X-Men Origins” couldn’t even get that right, but here we get some pretty great action set pieces that let Wolverine be the Wolverine.

The problem with Wolverine as a character, much like Superman, is that he’s, well, invincible. Although Wolverine still feels pain, he can’t really die. This film is smart enough to find a way to rob him of his regenerative powers for a good portion of the movie, giving a weight to the action that has been sorely missing from Logan’s encounters in previous films. Also, Wolverine fighting ninja assassins? Yes, please.

Don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an all-out action film, though. It’s quite talky (in both English and Japanese), and Logan has a lot of emotional baggage to carry. That’s a very good thing: “Wolverine” is one of the more intimate comic book movies in memory, which also makes it one of the more engaging. Logan’s growing emotional attachment to Mariko, as both protector and potential lover, is sidelined by his inability to detach from the memory of Jean, and its easy to see that, even for a mutant, some scars will never heal.

Director James Mangold, always a consummate visual stylist, directs with a sure hand, allowing emotional scenes and dialogue to play out without the desire to gum up the works with needless extraneous characters or villains to fight. The breathtaking Japanese vistas and emphasis on Japanese culture are a welcome change of pace for a comic-based film.

That is, until the last half hour, where things get rather silly (and convoluted) rather quickly. It’s also a total “Iron Man” rip-off. Still, nothing here comes close to the cheesiness of Logan’s last outing, and most of the film feels solidly grounded in the real world.

That’s truly the strength of the “X-Men” franchise; no matter how outlandish its characters’ powers may be, we can see them fitting into our everyday society. We can identify with their ostracized, outcast nature because we ourselves can sometimes feel ostracized or “different.” It makes it, in my mind, the most engaging of the Marvel film universes.

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine for a long time, and I’m so glad to see he isn’t done with the character quite yet (stay after the credits for an awesome tease of what’s to come). Until the whole gang is rounded up for 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this is a pretty darn good holdover, and certainly the most engaging superhero film we’ll see this summer.